peace, love and protocol

All sorts of people come to my house and have all sorts of questions about its unique features, so I usually have all sorts of answers. But the other day a guest asked a new question: “Why are those outside lights on in the middle of the day?”

My husband and my children and I looked at each other.


My husband is pretty sure he knows everything, so he answered: “They’re on timers,” he said. “They’re automatic.”

Our guest smiled politely and bobbed his head. His hands were resting on the arms of the chair and he looked very peaceful—and very comfortable.

We were not.

Then our guest persisted: “There is enough light outside. Why do you need those?”

And my husband, who runs UC San Diego, said to him “Yeah, we’ll fix it. Don’t worry.”

And I was left to wonder, when the Dalai Lama sits in your living room and asks you why your outdoor lights are unnecessarily lit in the middle of the day, do you really say to him “Yeah…don’t worry?”

photo by Eric Jepson / Author Thespine Kavoulakis helps the Dalai Lama step up to the stage. To the left of the photo Kavoulakis’ children, Nina and Alex.

But the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, sat there, in our living room, smiling, and he seemed to be happy with that answer so he asked another question, about the unique pattern in the wood ceiling beams. I told the story of how the original owners’ son accidentally charred the beams when he was working with the contractors to carve them, and then he tried to hide the damage by sanding the wood. It was not possible to hide the burn marks, however, and when his parents saw the leopard-like pattern they thought it was stunning and had him intentionally char and sand all the other beams as well.

But the Dalai Lama said that he thought they looked like different kinds of wood. “They could be,” I said diplomatically, but they were all on this property when the house was being built, so the contractors used what they found.”

He nodded with understanding. His 20-some person security entourage stood together in the corner of the living room, quietly and patiently. His translator translated what I said, I guess to make sure that His Holiness understood that there was no need to worry, the home’s previous owners had used their resources wisely and were not wasteful.

My husband talked about the University House, about the great view of La Jolla that the Dalai Lama was looking at and about UC San Diego, where the Dalai Lama had given the Commencement speech earlier in the day.

Now he was all ours for about 20 minutes before we took him to meet a select group of about 130 VIPs gathered in our Assembly Room.

Before his arrival, there was nervous excitement throughout the University, particularly in our house. His liaison and a security team visited several times to map out the Dalai Lama’s steps and direct us on how to receive His Holiness. Each guest was sent a letter that included protocol guidelines, such as “when the Dalai Lama enters or leaves a room, you should stand” to “when leaving with the Dalai Lama staying, take a few steps back still facing him before turning to leave, rather than turning your back on him directly” and the more specific “when sitting, if you cross your legs, avoid pointing your feet toward the Dalai Lama.” Protocol also dictated that there would be no cameras allowed and asked people to please refrain from taking selfies.

There is excitement everywhere the Dalai Lama goes. First of all, he is surrounded by people in saffron-colored robes or dark suits whose job it is to take care of his complete well-being, so when he walked into our courtyard, one of his monks followed close behind holding an umbrella over His Holiness to shield him from the sun.

photo by Eric Jepson/ Thespine Kavoulakis, left, and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, right, walk toward the house with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Secondly, he is 82 years old and (like other 82-year-olds) he walks slowly and carefully, so he has aides to walk along with him.

And in His Holiness’ case, he has someone to straighten his robes each time he sits down and to hold his various personal belongings for him so he can speak unencumbered.

When he arrived, my husband and I were in the courtyard in the front of our house to greet him. We saw the cars arrive, we saw monks dressed in saffron-colored robes, we saw security people in dark suits plus some of our own staff…but we didn’t see the Dalai Lama: he had wandered from his delegation to go chat with the rather surprised valets.

So we waited.

When he finally entered the courtyard and walked toward us, my husband—who is Indian—greeted him in the typical Indian tradition of placing his hands with his palms together and bowing slightly. I did the same, and the Dalai Lama also took our hands and held them.

We welcomed him to our home, photographers snapped pictures, and we headed to the living room with my husband holding one of his hands and me holding the other to help him up the small step in front of the door.

Photo by Eric Jepson / Thespine Kavoulakis and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla caution His Holiness the Dalai Lama to watch his step as he enters the University House.

My husband told him to “watch this small step” as we all three stepped up.

But I was thinking “please do not trip over the step or we will all fall flat on our faces and the photographers will take our pictures.”  Fortunately he did not trip, and we made it inside, still holding hands.

He met our children and my mother-in-law, who came from India for this visit, where we sat and chatted for a while—until his handlers pushed him along on the well-planned schedule.

So my husband led the Dalai Lama to the Assembly Room, my family and I walked to our seats in the front row and stood, and the guests all stood. The room was packed; chairs were jammed into every available space, although we tried not to crowd the small stage in the front of the room.

My husband and the Dalai Lama walked through the crowd to the front of the room, although that took several minutes because His Holiness stopped every two or three steps to chat or to hold someone’s hand.

Then an odd thing happened: the Dalai Lama found himself in the front of the room, standing at the bottom step to the stage, and there was no one to help him up the two stairs.  The room was too crowded for people to move easily, and the security people, his monks, and his translator had all stepped aside. So there he was, almost inexplicably alone at the front of the room.

I instinctively jumped up and took his arm.

Now … just about one of the last people on earth anybody should have helping them up or down stairs is … well … ME.  I don’t have good balance and I don’t go up and down steps well myself. But there I was, holding the Dalai Lama’s arm, trying to be a sturdy support as he cautiously stepped on that first stair. I was helping him up and praying that he wouldn’t fall down and break a hip or a leg or his back or his skull on my watch.

The Dalai Lama is recognized as a Head of State, so there were a number of security measures and precautions taken for his visit. Not only had his path been mapped and his schedule planned for every part of his day, but roads were closed, the campus was emptied, and we minimized his exposure outdoors as much as we could. In between, there were threats, planned walk outs during Commencement (six students left), and a hostile letter-writing campaign. We had managed all of that very well, so there was no way I wanted publicity for dropping the Dalai Lama.

Fortunately, one of his security people hopped into place just in time and took the Dalai Lama’s other arm and together we helped His Holiness up the steps. He sat in the designated armchair, one of the monk’s having appeared just in time to arrange the Dalai Lama’s robes before he sat.

I don’t remember specifics about what His Holiness said, but his message was simple and clear: love and be kind and compassionate to everyone in order to make this world a better place for us all. As he spoke to the audience, an aura of peace and love emanated from him. He was engaging and charming. When the Dalai Lama laughed, everyone in the audience joined him because he was obviously enjoying his own humor, and yes, his laugh is truly infectious.

The Dalai Lama spoke for about an hour, injecting humor and philosophical observations and advice into his talk. I was happy that he warned people (my children) not to want material things or want to be like others because these goals do not allow you to be happy in life. They instead force you to be unhappy with what you don’t have. Listening to him speak was like listening to a beloved grandfather or great uncle relaxing in a comfortable armchair and philosophizing about how simple it was to fix the world if only everyone understood how important kindness was.

The Dalai Lama isn’t in the least bit intimidating or imposing; he says he is nothing but a simple Tibetan monk. He is gentle, loving and warm, and very much like any other unassuming, kind hearted and lovable 82-year-old Tibetan man who might come to visit on any random Thursday afternoon. It just so happened that this one was recognized world-wide for preaching about kindness and compassion.

And by the way, in case you were wondering what it felt like to touch the Dalai Lama, he has warm hands.

If you would like to see my husband’s introduction and then the Commencement speech the Dalai Lama gave (at the 13:55 minute mark) at UC San Diego, you can watch it here:



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